BFI London Film Festival 2013: ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ restoration a noir triumph

Lady-from-Shanghai-PosterThe Lady from Shanghai

Written and directed by Orson Welles

USA, 1947

Long before the likes of Brangelina dominated the Hollywood gossip columns, figures such as Hedda Hooper and  Louella Parsons were the all-powerful industry matriarchs whose withering wit could make or break film careers. The tumultuous romance between Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth on the set of The Lady from Shanghai, which has received a BFI funded restoration for this year’s London Film Festival, was the fodder of scandal-drenched periodicals around the globe in those postwar years. The main difference between Shanghai and something like 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith  is that the former film endures as a curious classic beyond the fading celebrity chatter, with subsequent analysis identifying the movie as either Welles’ strychnine-poisoned valentine to Hayworth or a gloomy paean to a remorse-fueled marriage. Either way, it’s a curiously ambivalent and fractured piece that inverts and perverts the traditional trappings of noir, with one of the all-time great film climaxes. There are four essential Welles pictures for any film fans. Sure, the Shakespeare adaptations and more esoteric fare such as Mr. Arkadin or The Stranger are essential for serious acolytes, but he made four endlessly fascinating masterpieces: Citizen KaneThe Magnificent AmbersonsTouch Of Evil and The Lady From Shanghai.

With a slightly jarring Irish accent that quickly retreats into the film’s resigned voiceover tempo, Welles is Michael O’Hara, a roguish wandering soul who spies the beautiful  Elsa Bannister (a platinum, predatory Hayworth) emerging from a dark Central Park astride a regal horse-drawn carriage – resplendent, remote, and rotten. After saving this perfumed vision from the clutches of a gang of hooligans with less than gentlemanly intentions,  O’Hara is drawn into Elsa’s web, as her lawyer husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) hires him as a bosun for a Pacific cruise down the Western coast of Mexico, accompanied by his professional partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Panting like a dog in sexual and environmental heat, O”Hara resists temptation until Grisby makes him a perverted offer he can’t refuse: $5,000 in cash should he agree to kill him, sign a confession, and ensure his family receives a lucrative insurance payout, thus supplying O’Hara with the funds to elope with his objet d’amour. Of course, all the members of this quadratic quagmire are playing their own angle and obscuring insatiable ulterior motives. Soon, the double crosses are proliferating faster than the scoreboards of an elite class tic-tac-toe championship.

The-Lady-from-Shanghai-Well

This was Welles’ last dreamy dalliance with Hollywood before Touch of Evil; not content to tow the party line, he insisted on experimentation and manipulation of the form, transforming a somewhat conventional dime-store pulp thriller into a torpid maelstrom of mistrust and unease, and a perilous gaze into the spaces between lust and trust. It’s noir in style but with an off-kilter infection. Instead of unfolding in tawdry drinking dens or neon splashed streets, The Lady Of Shanghai takes the genre motifs and charts them to a nautical road movie, as the sweltering cruise raises the temperature with every beachfront pause. Any tensile continuity is certainly absent, and from a purely narrative perspective, some of the tendrils simply don’t make sense. But it wouldn’t be an Orson Welles production if it didn’t have some sense of a mutilated, shredded remnant of what might have been. The Lady from Shanghai  is perfectly concise in its supposedly truncated form, a gut punch of a movie – rather than an expanded, bloated corpse – that climaxes with one of the greatest and most shattering endings of the 1940s. It is a welcome resurrection for noir connoisseurs at this year’s London Film Festival.

— John McEntee

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